Originally published in Pom Pom Quarterly, Issue 23, Winter 2017
It is said that there are many ways to skin a cat. Indeed, there are many ways to shear a sheep. Of course, this is much more animal-friendly as the sheep survive the process.
But there are hundreds of ways to release the fleece, with diverse results in regards to comfort of the sheep during and after the process, speed, ease for the shearer, and quality of the resulting wool. No matter how carefully the process is tailored to all those involved, ovine and human alike, there will still be individuals who think it should be done differently. Others believe that we should eschew the use of anything recently animal-based altogether. I say ‘recently’ because the petro-chemicals that produce plastics often used in substitutes for animal-based products such as pleather and acrylic come from long-dead dinosaurs. And it’s terribly difficult to ensure that no insects are hurt in the harvesting of vegetable-based fibres… but now I’m clutching at straws. Why can’t anything ever be straightforward? Good or bad. An indisputable best way to do The Thing.
Everything we do when we knit and crochet, starting with the tools and yarn, through cast-on to the final blocking and the whole lot in between, involves a million possible variants, and thus choices to be made. Does this mean it’s complicated? Not necessarily. A project is as simple or involved as you make it. Is easy better? Yes, if that’s how you like it. Is complicated bad? Not in the slightest, if that’s what appeals. There is a lot to know, but you don’t need to know it all, and it’s unlikely you ever could. For example, there are more ways to cast on than you can count. Can the same cast-on your grandma taught you when you were five see you through your whole life? Of course. Is it good to be aware that you have options and that there are different ways to do things? Hell yes! Could you dedicate your life to trying, then perfecting, every single cast-on and never use them to make a finished item? Sure.
Whether you are the sort who rolls with your existing arsenal of knitting skills or adds to it continuously, the beauty of knitting lies in yarn’s potential to become any number of things in a multitude of ways. Regardless of the depth of your knowledge, simply knowing how to knit (and/or crochet) is great, full stop. It gives you the option to make things, make choices, and entertain yourself. It’s easy to default into thinking other people know better. If you find yourself heading that way, stop and acknowledge that what you know has value and whatever else you choose to take on board is an addition to your already practical skill set. It’s also likely that you have worked out a successful way to do something that a knitter you idolise would find useful and inspirational. We all have something to learn from each other. As adults we are inclined to beat ourselves up for what we don’t know, rather than gazing at the thrill of all there is yet to discover with childlike wonder.
If you know a significant amount, you might fall into the trap of thinking your favourite way is the only right one, or that there is always a better way out there, maybe one that everyone else knows except you. Let’s not beat ourselves up about what we don’t know, or blame others for what they don’t know either. The important thing is to feel satisfied. Satisfaction is one of the hardest states to achieve in contemporary life, where we are constantly bombarded with advertising that stabs us with the triple-edged sword of desire, FOMO, and self-doubt. It’s hard to be immune to it. Knitting is used as therapy in various ways – grief counselling, anger management, anxiety control, confidence building – but the greatest gift of knitting (and maybe the key to its sustained efficacy) is the satisfaction it gives us in allowing our brains to puzzle over an engaging and productive task. A task that is attainable and under our control. We can enjoy the fruits of our labour both while it is a WIP and once it is an FO. The fact that there is always something else to learn and another variation to try is what keeps us sniffing the wool fumes. It’s a reminder of the joyous state of wonder you experience when you discover that something you love has infinite applications and possibilities, but just doing it is exciting enough.
When I teach a knitting class of any level, I go in knowing I will learn something too, not because I don’t know enough or am passing the buck of my responsibilities over to an unwitting class participant (or the one who just adores sharing the vastness of their knowledge), but because there’s infinite knowledge to be gained, and I’m surrounded by a group of similarly curious people. It’s nice to be reminded, and to remind others, that we all have something to offer. Once I’ve introduced the session project and it’s on the needles, I used to start by asking when and how people had started to knit. What felt like a benign question, to get the conversation percolating, turned out to be anything but innocuous.
The moment when knitting enters our life is frequently an emotionally charged story to share, as it relates to loved ones or times of upheaval. We are most often taught our first stitches by friends and family (and what’s more complicated than family?). If we didn’t fall in love with knitting in the common childhood bracket of 5 to 10 years of age, many decide to learn or return to knitting at moments of transition in their lives: illness; becoming a parent; joining a new community. Knitting offers a welcome change of pace through distraction, focus, and control. Sharing those stories is fascinating and reinforcing, but they are about our pasts, with all their joys and tribulations. I realise what I am really keen to know is the ins and outs of why the hell people continue knitting. What makes us keep picking up the needles and casting on anew, project after project? Whether for 4 years or 70, why does it still hold our interest?
Because there are many ways to knit a hat.